Has the Mystery of the ‘Mona Lisa’ Background Been Solved?

Ann Pizzorusso, a geologist and art historian, says she’s identified the location in the background of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting

Visitor takes a photo of the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa is the most popular painting at the Louvre in Paris. Gao Jing / Xinhua via Getty Images

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is full of mysteries. Who was she? What is the meaning of the enigmatic expression on her face? What methods did Leonardo use while creating the painting? Does the landscape in the background represent a real place?

Now, an independent geologist and art historian says she knows the answer to at least one outstanding question about the enigmatic portrait: the setting.

Ann Pizzorusso argues the painting’s background represents Lecco, a small town in northern Italy’s Lombardy region, reports Reuters’ Matteo Negri. She reached that conclusion after studying the rock formations and other features of the painting, which is on display at the Louvre in Paris.

Pizzorusso says the body of water depicted in the piece is Lake Garlate, formed by the Adda River just south of Lecco. The bridge depicted just above the sitter’s left shoulder is the 14th-century Azzone Visconti, according to Pizzorusso. Finally, the rock formations over the woman’s left shoulder match the limestone formations in Lecco.

She presented her hypothesis at a geology conference in Lecco earlier this month.

Pizzorusso began her career as a geologist, working on oil drilling and environmental cleanup projects, according to her website. But then she developed a fascination with the Italian Renaissance—and even earned her master’s degree in Italian Renaissance studies.

Since then, she’s combined her two passions to bring a unique geological lens to the artwork of the period. Pizzorusso has written five books, including three about Leonardo.

Past theories about the background have focused primarily on the bridge and the road in the painting. Some scholars have argued Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa in Bobbio, a town in northern Italy, or somewhere in the province of Arezzo. Last summer, Italian art historian Silvano Vinceti argued that the painting depicted the Ponte Romito bridge in the Tuscan village of Laterina.

However, Pizzorusso says these theories ignore the rock formations in Leonardo’s artwork.

“The arched bridge was ubiquitous throughout Italy and Europe, and many looked very similar,” she tells the Observer’s Dalya Alberge. “It is impossible to identify an exact location from a bridge alone. They all talk about the bridge, and nobody talks about the geology.”

Leonardo died in 1519, but he left behind many notebooks containing his observations, drawings and diagrams. His writings don’t reveal the Mona Lisa’s location, so there’s currently no way to prove or disprove Pizzorusso’s theory.

Some scholars support her idea, in part because her expertise combines science and art—just like Leonardo’s.

“Because she has bona fide scientific knowledge, when she notices things in Leonardo—the most scientific artist ever—they’re momentous,” says Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch U.K., a nonprofit focused on art conservation, to the Observer.

Still, not everyone is convinced. Martin Kemp, a renowned art historian at the University of Oxford, argues that the painting’s backdrop is an imagined place, not a real one.

"[Leonardo is] looking at real things with incredible intensity, but he then remakes them in painting,” Kemp tells CBC Radio’s Sheena Goodyear, adding that trying to use geology to determine the setting is “just fanciful.”

Francesca Fiorani, an art historian at the University of Virginia, agrees, telling the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris that the locales in Leonardo’s paintings are “his personal imaginary rendition of nature, not copies of actual landscapes.”

“To claim otherwise,” she adds, “means not understanding how Leonardo’s mind worked and how he painted.”

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